Two very interesting articles I’ve read this week offer glimpses of the state of the music business.
A while back, Peter Case posted on Facebook that he was starting a label. I wrote to him: “Pretty soon it’s going to be ‘one man, one label.’” And he replied: “Yeah, it’s like the fall of the Soviet Union: the playing field has been completely leveled.”
It also means that the ceiling has come down so low that a modestly-successful (but largely happy and self-sufficient) player like me can be see as doing reasonably well. And that the possibilities for the likes of me are fairly limited. I am too old to be a pop star (and not even slightly interested in making the kind of music that would put me into that world) anyway!
Steve Albini: “The old system was built by the industry to serve the players inside the industry. The new system where music is shared informally and the bands have a direct relationship to the fans was built by the bands and the fans in the manner of the old underground. It skips all the intermediary steps.”
And: “Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation. Well, not unless the rights holders are willing to let me turn the tables on it. If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I. Play a Phil Collins song while I’m grocery shopping? Pay me $20. Def Leppard? Make it $100. Miley Cyrus? They don’t print money big enough.”
Read Albini’s keynote from the Face the Music conference (whatever that is).
And this article from this week’s East Bay Express exposes the moves Pandora has made to boost its profits by lowering payments to performers and publishers.
The Tyranny of Free, by Sam Lefebvre
I get checks from SoundExchange, piling up those infinitesimal payments for each play on Pandora, Spotify, various airline music streams, etc. “Echolalia,” an instrumental from my CD The Ones that Look the Weirdest Taste the Best, seems to be fairly popular.
I make money playing gigs, and I sell a modest amount of “product” at those gigs. The small amounts I make from royalties isn’t really enough to make a difference in my life, but a few hundred bucks a year from BMI and SoundExchange, plus sales (hard copy and e-book) of Conversations with the Dead, help me to feel like a viable entity in the marketplace.
I don’t have the resources to do any serious promotion, and quite frankly it doesn’t seem like a wise investment anyway. I said this to some friends who just put out a CD: if you’re not in stores and you’re not touring nationally, then it doesn’t make much sense to spend money trying to get radio airplay. I invested in radio promotion for Weirdest when it came out in 2008, but I don’t think I’ll do that for the next record.
I am in complete control of my musical life and work: I own the rights to all of my songs and recordings. I book almost every one of my own gigs myself. I pay an accountant to manage my business (which includes my radio work), and I have an agent representing me for book stuff. But I don’t make enough money to attract a booking agent or manager – and (Catch-22!) it’s hard for me to step up to the next level as a touring performer because I don’t have access to the major talent buyers, don’t have enough of a draw to get into big clubs, etc.
But! I get to play the music I want to play. I do some festivals, play lots of house concerts (which I LOVE); I tour with the Rumpke Mountain Boys as often as we can manage it; and for almost a year now I have been making entirely improvised music with a band we call The Known Unknown. It’s really hard to market, but it’s really fun to play and the guys I’m doing it with (Phil Savell, guitar; Zach Partain, bass; Neil Hampton, percussion) are as into it as I am. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant experiences in recent years, putting together bands in which I was pretty much the only one moving things forward; it’s really nice to be with people who are willing to invest their energies into all phases of the project!
I grew up in a musical world that just doesn’t exist any more. Not much point in mourning that, ’cause there’s work to do and fun to be had in the world I’m in.